Growing Faith The Civil Rights Activist Whose Unique Spirituality Helped Me Find My Own
After I left my family’s religion, I was, for better or worse, searching for a blueprint, a model I could trust, which felt familiar enough to be safe, yet bold enough to be revolutionary.
I am nine years old on the floor level of a sports arena filled with close to 3,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. My head emerges from a swimming pool; my body lain in the arms of a man. Standing now, I catch sight of my family waving at me. Through blurry vision, their signature toothy smile looks unbroken—just one continuous white block plastered from face to face. Ours is the most important bond in my life, but I have just been baptized, vowing a lifelong commitment to a religion that can divide us if I change my mind. They are overjoyed.
Ten years later, almost to the day, I want out. And my family, as mandated by rules to limit association with nonbelievers, is broken.
Once a member of a close-knit unit, all sharing the same face and laugh, bound by blood, shared memory, inside jokes . . . I am now completely solo, an island. Regular phone calls slow to a trickle. I learn of family vacations only from Facebook photos. I watch the years go by as nieces and nephews are born and pass through milestones. I feel as if I am living in a nightmare.
It seems impossible that a religion could have done this (especially one which seemed so benign!), so I don’t speak of my family to anyone. Explaining the complexities, which already feel surreal to me, would only make it worse. I cover myself in silence: silence about my family, silence from my family, and then, most hauntingly, silence about my beliefs because, despite all the upheaval I have caused, I still don’t know what they are.
I only knew what I didn’t believe. The ugly truth was that I had always known. But instead of being like other JW kids, who made it clear that they were just being dragged along through the motions, I craved my family’s approval so much that religion and spirituality became synonymous with pretending to be someone other than myself. If there was only one true religion like I had been taught, then the only option I had was to lie and pretend to be all in.
On the best days, I thought that I could trick myself into it, as if I could be saved by some fake-it- until-you-make-it holy miracle. On my worst days, I was filled with resentment that no matter how well I tricked everyone, God still knew I was a fraud, so in the end, my family would be saved at Armageddon, and I would be destroyed anyway; the jig would be up. Though I knew I didn’t believe and that the teachings didn’t sit right with me, choosing to leave still felt like a revelation—as if I could finally see the truth, though I had been aware of it, lurking at the edges of my lies, all my life.
The way I left is almost silly. Some former JWs describe their leaving as a gradual process of awakening, but for me it was one epiphanous moment that happened in a freshman philosophy class in college. Freshman philosophy classes are exactly the kind of places JWs are always warned about. College is regarded suspiciously in the first place, and a philosophy class is seen as a hot seat for man-made (read: devilish) ideas. But there I was nonetheless. I’d always been curious about philosophy, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t take any of it seriously anyway. If I was willing to betray the code which united us, what new thing was worth the pain I had caused?
But then, one day, the professor explained circular reasoning, the kind of reasoning that begins with the conclusion the reasoner is trying to reach, where the argument is flawed because the premise needs proof as well as the conclusion. As an example, the professor used a conversation he’d had with two Jehovah’s Witnesses who happened to be using an argument with which I was well familiar. And then, just as suddenly, I was filled with rage and embarrassment.
After that, I started skipping class, fell into a depression, and finally failed. In the meantime, I stopped going to the Kingdom Hall, and my whole life changed before my eyes. The professor never knew that day in class changed everything for me. He probably doesn’t remember my name, nor do I remember his. I just remember that day—seething at my desk, marching up to speak to the professor, and being shown the logical flaws in the doctrine I had been raised on.
There are things which you can’t un-know, just as there are things you can’t unsee. The moment in the philosophy class is where I pin the revelation. But maybe I always knew, and maybe that was just the moment when I could no longer look back.
From the moment I left my family’s religion, I was dogged by the question of what to replace it with. If I didn’t believe the creed that was my whole family’s identity, the thing my family had staked their lives upon, what did I believe? If I was willing to betray the code which united us, what new thing was worth the pain I had caused?
I began by looking back. I didn’t know anything about the religion of my Nigerian ancestors on my dad’s side. When I asked, I got a vague response about animism. I had to look up the word animism— the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena;
the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe. I liked the sound of it, but I knew that whatever they believed was pagan, that blanket term for “evil” that we used for everything that wasn’t Jehovah’s Witness.
On my mother’s side, I already knew, my ancestors were church people. My grandfather was a pastor of his own church. My aunts and uncles were all sorts of ushers, reverends, and deacons. I grew up in South Carolina with this heritage, but I had never been to church. Decades before I was born, my mother became a Jehovah’s Witness, something that didn’t seem to cause discord in her family. But we usually kept our distance from them, only saw them on special occasions. I only knew of my church roots in vague terms. I had no gospel singing voice to claim. I had never seen someone speaking in tongues, or catching the holy ghost, or seen any of my family members preach.
All I knew was what could be found at the local Kingdom Hall: somber meetings where men gave mild-toned sermons at a wooden podium on a bare stage, and Saturday mornings spent knocking on doors with my family, praying that no one from school saw me and made fun of me like the comedians who joked on JWs knocking on doors bothering people in the morning.
Fresh out of the religion, for the most part, I didn’t know what I believed, but there was a hidden part of me that had an inkling . I was always interested in different types of spirituality, and I felt like Shug Avery from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple spoke for me: “I believe God is everything. Everything there is or ever will be . . .
When I moved to New York, I got a job working in the bookstore of an interfaith seminary. Fifteen years had passed since I had been baptized as a child, and five since leaving the church completely. Surrounded by books on Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and all sorts of New Age schools of thought, I was both fascinated and overwhelmed.
The world of being free from the JWs still felt new, and I reveled in things that I had been previously sheltered from; I was experiencing parts of life which most people take for granted, like celebrating holidays and having platonic friendships. One evening, I visited a Sufi order with a Muslim friend and sat cross-legged on the floor, dazzled while people dressed in billowing white spun in circles. Dervishes. In love with the Divine, I thought, wondering if I’d ever feel free enough to twirl like that.
On another day, using a prayer bowl someone gave me for my 23rd birthday (one of the first I’d ever celebrated since birthday celebrations were prohibited as a Witness), I sat on the floor of my bedroom, closed my eyes, and tried to meditate. I didn’t know if what I was doing was technically considered meditating. All I knew was that I desperately needed to close my eyes and relax, and so that’s what I did.
I didn’t even know how to use the bowl—I clumsily tapped it and listened to the gong, not knowing to drag the baton along the edge to make it sing. I found the sound soothing, so I did it again. I wouldn’t have said it this way then, but sitting there in my own space, intentionally relaxing and caring for myself, I was connecting to the part of me which felt inviolate, the part which didn’t ache every time I thought of my family, which wasn’t bruised by the loss of community, which wasn’t ashamed of being a sinner, the part which knew myself, without a doubt, to be worthy of love unconditional.
I was also delving into activism and owning my political consciousness for the first time. As a JW, I had been raised to be apolitical. It is forbidden for Witnesses to vote or run for political office—even student council. As a new ex-JW, I began campaigning for presidential candidates, going to marches, and getting into heated political debates. But internally, I struggled with feeling like being political made me a sinner. Spiritual uncertainty loomed large.
Months after my first meditation experience, I joined a study group at a Zen Buddhist center and learned to meditate. I learned how to use the prayer bowl and focus on breathing when my thoughts wandered. I realized the black feminist writers I’d been reading since I was a teenager were an important ingredient in my spiritual life. I started listening to gospel music and occasionally went to church services, though I was still too afraid to join a church. I was learning so many new things, but still the old questions wouldn’t escape me.
Nothing felt just right. I was, for better or worse, searching for a blueprint, a model that I could trust, one which felt familiar enough to be safe, yet bold enough to be revolutionary.
One day at lunch, a new friend asked about my religious beliefs: Do you go to church? Are you a Christian? I shrugged and said I didn’t really believe anything, but that wasn’t quite true. I actually believed plenty of things. I just didn’t have a name for it all. I believed Jesus was a gifted orator, a revolutionary, and maybe a poet. I believed meditation made me feel whole. I believed in human resilience, and the power of Nature and the Universe. I believed in the power of my ancestors, no matter how little I knew about them.
All of it felt true. Saying that I believed in “nothing” was dishonest. Again, I had found myself lying about my beliefs.
It was around this time that I saw Rosemarie Freeney Harding staring at me in an old black and white photo on the cover of a book in the library.
I was passing time, not looking for anything in particular. But the way my hand grabbed the book let me know I needed to have it. There was something compelling about the softness of her eyes. She had a peacefulness that didn’t look forced. She reminded me of the women I admired most when I was growing up, who were just as strong as they were gentle, who were innately wise, but never dogmatic.
Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering by Rosemarie Freeney Harding and her daughter, Rachel Harding, is a spiritual love letter written in praise of a life devoted to spiritual seeking, which upholds one’s own spiritual compass, and is driven by reverence for one’s roots, and a commitment to social activism. It is about a life rich with spiritual complexity and compassion, a spirituality that is an original, profound way of understanding life and which is fundamentally womanist.
Freeney Harding was raised in rural Georgia and describes her early spirituality through the lens of her mother and grandmother. They were healers who believed in the mysticism of the South—haints and the Earth’s natural healing powers—which, to them, never conflicted with going to church or reading the Bible. Hospitality, integral to who they were, was more than just hosting. It was the sacred practice of welcoming people, making them feel seen and taken care of.
Reading how Rosemarie described spirituality in terms of heritage, I wondered what it would be like to feel the strength of generations of belief. What would it be like to know that my connection with the Divine was built on seeds sown by things that strengthened my ancestors?
Freeney Harding converted to the Mennonites in the early 1950s. Founded around 1525, the Mennonites are an anabaptist group known for pacifism. Rosemarie could see how their peacemaking principles fit with her southern roots and the nonviolent ideology of the Civil Rights movement. When she joined, there were only about 150 African American members.
After an invitation from Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize for the Southern Freedom movement, Rosemarie and her husband, Vincent, moved to Atlanta to organize for the movement as representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee, the first African Americans in the church to hold such a position. They organized with and hosted activists like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and also worked closely with King and his family.
After their years working in the movement in Atlanta, Rosemarie and her family moved to Philadelphia where her spiritual life expanded. There, she was influenced by the work of an Irish Catholic priest, a yoga master, and a Sufi mystic. Later in her life, she went to India to study with the Dalai Lama, and became a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Her spirituality encompassed the southern Black mysticism of her ancestry, Anabaptist Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, all the while being committed to social justice and Black Liberation.
Rosemarie’s spiritual life never conflicted with Christianity or her understanding of the African religions practiced by her ancestors. This type of inclusiveness felt right to me, but how could I trust my intuition when I had been taught that the past was, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, shameful? What was the art of connecting seemingly disparate belief systems into something comprehensive by which to guide your life?
There were also all the cultural messages (before the days of DNA tracing websites) that ridiculed Black ancestry. I never saw such mockery of white ancestors, but everywhere I looked I saw enslaved people or Africans made fun of—from slave jokes about Kunta Kinte to the way people stereotyped Africans as savages. I had heard of rites of passage programs and trips to Africa and Black history month programs in churches, but those were mostly non-existent in my world. I knew intuitively that the strength of Rosemarie was that she didn’t exist with such cavernous gaps between religion and ancestry; how all of the pieces of her spirituality fit together.
What would it be like to know that my connection with the Divine was built on seeds sown by things that strengthened my ancestors?
In my imagination, I felt the expansiveness of my spirituality. On the outside, I felt ashamed that my beliefs had no label, that I couldn’t claim a group. Rosemarie’s beliefs were global and represented different cultures, while still honoring her ancestry. To me, it seemed that she had figured it out: that spirituality could be many things at once, that it could encapsulate all the things you loved, all the things which interested and delighted you, that it could be unique and personal, and that if your life embodied it, it didn’t always need a name.
I had been taught religion was restrictive, though I knew intuitively that it could be freeing, and now there was Rosemarie confirming my intuition.
Rosemarie passed in 2004, almost a decade before I heard of her. But when I spoke to her daughter, Rachel Harding, an associate professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions at the University of Colorado Denver, in a phone conversation last fall, I knew that her legacy was more than just the book I found in the library.
After completing a PhD focusing on Afro-Atlantic religions, Rachel found that Condomblé, a religion created in Brazil by enslaved Africans using the cosmology of indigenous West African religion, embodied the type of inclusivity and warmth that characterized her mother’s spiritual life.
“Whatever I call religion is this inclusive, Christian, Indigenous, Black, Southern cosmology of compassion and connectedness,” Rachel once wrote in an essay for an anthology called Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation.
When Rachel finished her doctorate, she worked as Rosemarie’s assistant while Rosemarie did a fellowship at Radcliffe College, where they began to collect the material that would become Remnants. The next year, they returned to Denver, and Rachel worked with Veterans of Hope, a project which her parents founded that recorded the stories of living figures from the Civil Rights movement and other global freedom struggles.
Historically, I learned in speaking to Rachel, social justice and religion were always bound up in one another for black people. The role of the church in the Civil Rights movement cemented it as a driving force of social activism, she said, but her mother’s legacy goes back further than the Movement, and intrinsically welcomes people of all races, religions, and walks of life.
I found a sort of kinship with this. As I grew in my spiritual and my political practices, much like Freeney Harding, I realized I couldn’t have one without the other.
After I speak to Rachel, I visit the African American Heritage Museum in DC, where I see pottery made by enslaved people with what looks like the letter t scratched in them. The inscription says the mark is a symbol of the connection between the spiritual and material worlds.
In front of this artifact, I understand in a new way that the manner in which enslaved people adopted Christianity made perfect sense because their indigenous religions had always involved creativity and new ways of imagining the divine. It reminded me of what Rachel Harding called “the African sensibility of gathering things in rather than taking them out.”
A creative spirituality was my birthright; it didn’t make me weird, and it was certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Rosemarie confirmed things that I already knew, but which I didn’t have the courage to trust. Because of her, an expansive spirituality that didn’t leave out any part of the self and that included a commitment to social justice, seemed valid. These days, shame doesn’t lurk at the edges of my beliefs. But it is a process.
I live with the questions, knowing that my spirituality is an act of creation that is steadily being found and woven, my own tapestry.